By Lolita C. Baldor | The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — As the deadline for military and defense civilians to receive mandatory COVID-19 vaccines approaches, senior leaders must now wrestle with the fate of those who explicitly refuse shots or demand exemptions. and how to ensure that they are treated fairly and equitably.
The vast majority of the active duty force has received at least one bullet, but tens of thousands have not. For some, it can be a career-ending decision. Others may face transfers, travel restrictions, deployment limits and bonus repayment requirements.
Decisions on exemptions for medical, religious and administrative reasons will be made by unit commanders around the world, which the Pentagon says will be on a “case-by-case” basis.
It raises a worrying issue for military leaders, who are pursuing a vaccine mandate seen as vital to maintaining a healthy force but want to avoid a disproportionate, inconsistent approach with those in denial.
General Darrin Cox, Surgeon General of Brigadier Army Forces Command, said the commanders wanted to make sure they were following the rules.
“Due to some of the sensitivities of this particular vaccine, I think we just wanted to be sure that we were consistent and justified in serving a sentence” that “would result in continuing to deny a valid order.” “
Military vaccination rates are higher in the United States than in the general population and the reasons for objection – often based on misinformation – are similar to those heard across the country. But unlike most civilians, military personnel routinely require up to 17 vaccines, and face penalties for refusing.
Military services are reporting that between 1%-7% have not been vaccinated. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has called for compassion in dealing with soldiers who are about 60,000 active duty service members, according to figures released last week. Officials say the number changes daily, and includes people who have received or requested exemptions. He declined to say how many soldiers are still seeking exemptions or have been denied a vaccine.
When asked about possible changes in treatment for those seeking exemptions or those denied the vaccine, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said it was up to the services. “Each case is being treated specifically and individually as it should be,” he said.
Kirby said on Monday that the secretary does not want to tell commanders how to resolve the punitive measures, and is instead confident that they will do what is best for their units.
“So can we promise you that there will be complete uniformity across the board? No. And we don’t want to make that promise because it won’t be the same way we handle violations of orders for other crimes as well,” Kirby said.
It is not clear how widely religious exemptions will be granted. Under military regulations, commanders may take into account the potential impact on a unit’s mission, and may decline religious exemptions if it jeopardizes performance.
Commanders may also transfer service members to another job, denying them overseas deployment or limiting unit access when they are exempt or when the request is being reviewed. Those moves may be more common in smaller units such as special operations forces that are usually deployed in small numbers.
The Navy has warned that sailors who refuse a shot and are not exempted may have to refund bonuses and other financial payments based on existing military justice procedures for disobeying a valid order. Other services are expected to follow similar procedures.
Unaffiliated soldiers will also be subject to routine testing, distancing guidelines and possibly travel restrictions.
The Air Force can be a test case in some cases, as they are the first to hit the deadline. More than 335,000 airmen and Space Force guardians should be fully vaccinated by Tuesday, and the Air Guard and Reserve by December 2. .
Some have requested or received exemptions, others have refused outright. They have until Monday to request a discount.
Air Force Colonel Robert Corby, commander of the 28th Medical Group at Ellsworth Air Force Base, said appointments for shots at the base clinic doubled after the vaccine became mandatory in late August. He said soldiers have a range of questions and concerns, and commanders, clergy and medical personnel are providing information.
“I think you also have a section of the population that probably doesn’t realize that they are really at risk for COVID-19,” he said.
Air Force Captain Molly Lawler, the 28th Bomb Wing chaplain, said that “a very small percentage” are seeking religious exemptions at the base. “People are just trying to figure out how this new requirement fits into their belief system and the decisions they want to make,” she said.
More than 765,000 Defense Department citizens will be closer to the Air Force with a mandatory vaccine date of November 22. Supervisors are grappling with the complex task of checking and recording the vaccine status of their workers, and determining who will be the final waiver arbiter.
Citizens have until November 8 to get the waiver, and as of last week, less than half had provided proof of vaccination. Those who refuse the vaccine and do not get remission will get five days for counselling. If they still refuse, they will be suspended without pay for up to 14 days, and may then be fired.
Vaccination numbers fluctuate for military services, and drop significantly for the National Guard and Reserves.
A little over half of the Army National Guard have received at least one shot, while the Air Guard has at 87%. Air Guard members must be fully vaccinated by early December, while the Army Guard, which is much larger and more widely scattered across the country, is due by June.
The most successful service has been the Navy, which says only 1% of the force has not been vaccinated over the past week – or about 3,500 sailors. The Air Force and Space Force were in second place, with 3.6% unaffiliated, followed by the Army and Marine Corps at about 7%.
Admiral Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, told The Associated Press that even before shots were mandated, vaccination rates of 98%–99% were being observed in some warships.
“We think we’ve been a leader in services,” he said. “We’ve been promoting vaccines since we started immunizations last December, January deadline.” For those who do not want a vaccine, “we will deal with them on an individual basis as those challenges emerge,” he said.
Marine Corps Base Hawaii commander Marine Colonel Speros Komparakis said the number of Marines requesting exemptions at the base is less than two dozen, and most of them are seeking religious exemptions.
He said pastors and pastors have been made available to discuss religious issues, and that he does a preliminary review of any requests. But ultimately, decisions can be made by personnel leaders at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.
About 350,000 Navy sailors and over 179,000 sailors should be fully vaccinated by 28 November, and in reserve by 28 December. The Army, the Army’s largest service at around 490,000, has given active duty soldiers until December 15 to make a full recovery. Vaccinated. The Army National Guard and Reserve has until June 30, 2022. There are approximately 800,000 Guards and Reserves in total, of which the Army accounts for over 520,000.